by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr. Weirs Times Contributing Writer
The results of investigative reporting may not be welcome to those who prefer that the identity of the alleged witch be kept a mystery, but even perhaps the earliest printed account of the story admits that Granny Hicks of New Hampton, though perhaps looking like a witch and having some peculiar habits and some unexplained insight, was not really a witch.
If, however, the person(s) who identified the supposed witch as one Esther Prescott Hyde was correct the story is still full of unsolved mysteries. We still do not know how Granny Hicks (or Esther Hyde) knew who the five young masked men who destroyed her cottage were and how she could correctly prophesy how each would die. We do not know when she came to live in New Hampton and where she went after the destruction of her home. We do not know how she could live in the same town as a son and grandchildren with the townspeople not knowing of the connection. And other questions persist. Esther Prescott Hyde died in 1817 at the age of 64 and her body was buried in the New Hampton village cemetery in the Prescott family lot. This fact does not match the tale told by some that Granny Hicks was never seen or heard from again in New Hampton after her house was demolished. Some think that her death occurred in the same year that she lost the house. Her gravestone identifies her as the wife of John Hyde, but with no indication that he is buried near her.
No mention is made of her first husband, John Prescott, but her son, John, and his wife, Elizabeth Nichols Prescott are buried beside her. Also in the lot in front of the three previously mentioned is a smaller gravestone marking the graves of two of Esther’s granddaughters, Esther and Sarah Prescott.
Aunt “Est” and Aunt Sa, as they were called turned the Prescott house on Main Street into a Girl’s Boarding House for young ladies attending the New Hampton Literary School and developed a reputation for a high-quality housing establishment.
These granddaughters of Esther Prescott Hyde, the alleged witch, were portrayed as follows by newspaper editor E.C. Lewis : “The Prescott girls were universally loved and admired. Shrewd, bright, quick witted, natural nurses, hard workers, sharp of tongue, and close at trade, they were generous and public spirited.” Sarah died in 1885 and what was called the “great fire” of 1887 destroyed the boarding house and two other buildings. The land was sold to Judge Stephen Gordon Nash who had a public library which was named for him built at that location; the library continues to serve the town to this day.
It would appear that land in New Hampton given to Esther Prescott Hyde by her father on the banks of the Pemigewasset River became the home of one or more of her grandchildren.
My investigations lead me to believe that John and Elizabeth Prescott’s oldest son Rufus, and the youngest, Perrin, settled along the river. Prescott family history records state that Perrin was “… a farmer, residing with his family of six, in New Hampton, N.H.” Indications are that Rufus was also a farmer cleared land next to his brother’s property on land previously owned by their mother, father, and grandmother (Granny Hicks).
In finding a record of statistics concerning Granny Hicks (correctly Hyde) and her siblings (the Rollins family from Epping) with the dates of their births and deaths the date of death of Esther alone is missing, indicating that her ties with the family in her later years were not close. Moving on, though, let me mention two of “the witch” of New Hampton’s great-grandchildren who served in the Civil War. Perrin Prescott and his wife Susanah’s oldest child, Rufus, was born in 1833. It is thought that he attended a one-room school located on his father’s property, failed his Aunt Sarah’s efforts to enroll him in the N.H. Academical and Theological Institute after he told the headmaster he didn’t care for his son and became a travelling salesman. He served one hundred and nine days in the Union Army with the Sixth Volunteer Regiment of Massachusetts, fought in the battle of Winchester, Virginia in 1864, was promoted to corporal and guarded rebel prisoners in Delaware.
Rufus’ brother, John Francis Prescott, served for three years in the 12th New Hampshire Volunteer Regiment, beginning as a private and also being promoted to corporal. According to “THE PRESCOTT MEMORIAL” he was a “brave and intrepid soldier” who participated in seven battles, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Fort Royal, Port Waltham, Drury’s Bluff, and at Cold Harbor on June 1 and 3 of 1864. Young John Prescott was wounded on the field of battle at Cold Harbor and “…lay on the field from 5 o’clock A.M. , to 8 P.M., when he crawled back to his own lines.” In November of 1864 Prescott was captured and spent 96 days in the awful Libby Prison. He wrote of the conditions at the prison saying that “ we suffered incredibly from cold, hungers, and filth “, and “ It is impossible to give an adequate description of our sufferings while in prison; a great many were frozen to death, being so weak from starvation that they could not walk to warm themselves. I have walked all night, many a night, to keep from freezing.”
So there is a little of the information I have found about the brew, or maybe I should say “brood” of the witch of New Hampton, who was not really a witch at all, but is still a person of some mystery.
Was she the quiet woman who gave the children gifts and was adored by them, or did they throw sticks and stones at her as one version of her life tells us. Was she alienated from her family? Did she and John Hyde have any children? Those and many other questions still persist if Esther Prescott Hyde really was the person called Granny Hicks and the Witch of New Hampton.